The Happiest Veteran
By Jack Mandaville
I had a lot to drink the other night. I wasn’t puking-all-over-the-place-and-can’t-stand-up-on-my-own-will blasted, but I had enough that I knew I wasn’t good to drive.
“Uber…come get me!”
My driver, Gabe, showed up about 10 minutes later. It was three in the morning. A mix of voracious alcohol consumption, minimal food intake and only a few hours of sleep the night before had me doing everything I could to keep my eyes open.
I realized I didn’t want to be the asshole who passed out in some stranger’s car while he’s showing me the courtesy of a comfortable ride home, so I made a concerted effort to indulge him in small talk during the 25 minute drive home. Most of it was normal stuff: how bad the local drivers are, the weather, where we’re from, what part of town we live in now, what we do for a living, how bad the world has become since Chris Farley died (I made that last part up—I just wanted to remind you, the readers, how great Chris Farley was).
Going back to the where we’re from part, it was obvious once he opened his mouth that he wasn’t American-born. He said he was from Sierra Leone. I only knew that it’s a sub-Saharan African nation on the coast. Additionally, we touched on the where we live now part. He mentioned to me that he also lived in Chapel Hill, NC, then we went through obligatory joke about how boring the town is compared to the surrounding communities.
It wasn’t until we were about 5 minutes from my place that the conversation took a sobering turn. It seriously sobered me—or at the very least awakened me—right up.
He saw the USMC tattoo on my forearm, a permanent reminder of a drunken experience I had as a 19-year-old PFC fresh off deployment.
“You were in the military?” he asked.
I gave my standard response, something I’ll admit is stock and meant to derail further questions (even though I was the dumbass who stamped myself, thereby inviting the questions), “Yeah, I was in the Marines about nine years and ninety pounds ago.”
“Hahaha,” he responded. “I was in the military too.”
Oh great, I thought, I’m too drunk to care about your service or my service.
My actual response was more cordial. “What branch?”
“I was in the local army back in Sierra Leone,” he said. “A long time ago.”
“Oh cool,” I stated, admittedly a bit taken aback. “So you came to the States after you got discharged?”
“Yes, I was about thirteen at the time,” Gabe responded casually.
Silence. That statement briefly short wired my brain. I’m not the best at math, so it took me a few seconds to get the wheels turning.
Once I thought I figured it out, I replied with a question I can only describe as nervous in tone. I asked it not wanting to hear the answer I thought I was going to hear.
“Child soldier?” I asked in a shaky voice.
“Yes,” he once again said casually.
More silence from me. It definitely wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear.
It was all starting to click for me. “You came over on refugee status?”
“Yes,” with even more ease, “the UN disbanded us and we came here.”
I’m not going to give you a drawn-out history lesson. But for those of you who are unaware, some real fucked up shit happened to a lot of children from numerous African nations. Some of this stuff is still happening to this day.
Imagine being a young boy in a war-torn area. One day a group of armed men shows up to your door and forcefully removes you from your family. Any mother or father who puts up a fight is murdered and/or raped. You can barely comprehend the terrible political things happening in your country, much less why you’re being dragged into it at such a young age. These men take you far away from your family. They put a rifle that’s taller than you are in your hand. They feed you alcohol and cigarettes. They expose you to brutal acts conducted on men, women, and other children. Murder. Rape. Needless violence. If you’re lucky, you’ll only be witness to this stuff. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be directly involved in it. You’re more of a victim than a soldier.
I didn’t get into details with Gabe. I don’t know for sure what he did or what he saw. All I know is he was exposed to this world from 10 to 13 years old and that outsiders had to come in and rescue him from an unthinkable world of violence. Then he was plopped in America—probably still in his early teens—and expected to adapt.
From everything I saw during our ride, he had adapted well. A nice vehicle. A good job outside of his side Uber gig. He dressed well. He spoke well. He had a kind demeanor. All of that stuff.
But there’s a lot more to this than me telling you a story or giving you a brief history lesson on sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but I do feel obligated to tell you what I took away from the exchange. It was a home run of perspective that I’ve only experienced a few other times in my life.
Americans have a great life. There’s a ridiculous tendency in this country for people to say outlandish things in person and, in even greater numbers, on the internet. It’s not everyone, but it’s a significant portion of the population. We compare our politicians to terrorists (they certainly suck in a lot of ways, but that’s a bold statement). We blame our personal financial shortcomings on others instead of putting in the work to change it, and I truly believe there are few countries in the world that reward hard work like we do. We’re covetous. We create celebrities and insult them because we’re unhappy with ourselves. We don’t read material that challenges the way we think because we’re uncomfortable with self-reflection. We’re way too reactive to things we see in the news. We point fingers and cast blame before facts come out. I could go on and on.
Even more so, many American veterans have developed an unhealthy chip on their shoulders. There’s the old “my recruiter lied to me” chestnut. It’s easy to go after the VA, forgetting that we’re one of the few nations in the world that makes a determined effort to take care of our returning veterans—though the system is undoubtedly broken, it’s still a system that others can’t even fathom. We try to humiliate other veterans when they think or act differently than us. Simply put, there’s a lot of complaining for the sake of complaining and a lot less doing for the sake of improvement. Veterans are a representation the overall population in a lot of ways, and the nauseating victim mentality is very apparent at times.
Gabe didn’t have the luxury of walking into a recruiting office by choice. He didn’t have the luxury of long term medical care and incredible education benefits once his forced conscription was over. He didn’t have a chain-of-command he could report war crimes to. He didn’t have a congressman he could call when he felt he was being treated unfairly. He didn’t get paid. He didn’t have a family he could write home to. He didn’t even have a fucking childhood.
“I live in Chapel Hill because it’s boring and quiet,” Gabe quipped to me as we pulled into my place. “My children will never go through what I went through.”
How can we be angry about our situations when the only thing he’s ever asked for is peace?